In the March issue of Prospect magazine Bartle Bull, who has reported on Iraq for the New York Times, wonders whether the big media were hoping for the failure of the election in Iraq. He writes (subscription required):
There is a fine defiance here. In one incident I did not see but that has been widely reported, a Baghdad policeman spotted a suicide bomber outside a polling station and dragged him away from the crowd before the bomber detonated his belt, killing them both. The queues rose tenfold as the story of the policeman's martyrdom spread.'No longer is everything illegitimate' - indeed. But why on earth would anyone in the big media have wanted a failure in Iraq? No, you don't need to write and tell me. (Thanks: FB.)
Iraq is not about America any more. This has been increasingly true every day since last June, and the failure - or refusal - to recognise this has underpinned much of the misleading coverage of Iraq. In the evenings leading up to the election, I sat on carpets on the floors of a variety of shabby houses in the Baghdad slums. But the daily BBC message I watched with my various Iraqi hosts never budged. The refrain was Iraq's "atmosphere of intimidation and violence," and the message was that the elections could never work. What about the "atmosphere of resolve and anticipation" that I felt around me? Or the "atmosphere of patience and restraint" among those whom the terrorists were trying to provoke?
I try to avoid the hotels and the green zone and the Fort Apache press compounds when I am here. Sometimes it seems as though I am on a different planet from my colleagues in big media, and at those moments I worry briefly that I am getting the story wrong. The people at NBC news are not even allowed to go to the restaurant in their hotel. They report from the roof. When I went to the BBC's Baghdad bunker for some interviews after the election, the reporters I had been watching on television asked me, "So what's it like out there in the real world?" They meant the Iraqi street.
Before I became a writer, I dealt in the stock and bond markets. The markets tell you every day whether you are right or wrong. You don't have to have philosophical arguments with your boss or your clients: if you make money you are good, and if you lose money you are bad. Elections are one of the few news occasions that provide editors and reporters with the clarity of numbers to help us to judge whether or not we are doing a decent job. January 30th turned out to be a better day for Iraqis than it was for reporters.
The failure of "hotel journalism" might be forgivable if it were truly about prudence or even laziness. But there has been something wilful about the bad reporting of this story. It is weirdly personal: Iraq must fail. It is in fact the press that failed, on a scale for which I cannot think of a precedent. Will the big media outlets demand the same accountability of themselves that they demand of everyone else? They should, for the success of these elections was not so surprising to those who dug below the surface of Iraq.
One reason it was important that this year's electoral process should start well was that if this first stage were approached with resolve, as it was, Iraq's political outsiders would not want the train to leave the station without them. Iraq's biggest, loudest anti-occupation political movements have indeed reacted encouragingly to the success of 30th January.
The huge turnout has cemented the new Iraqi state as an accomplished fact, and Muqtada and the radical Sunni political groups have shifted their rhetoric to make demands within the new paradigm. It is a momentous shift. No longer is everything illegitimate.
A process has been unleashed that now has very little to do with America and with our opinions about US power. The process is in the hands of a people who on 30th January showed that they have what freedom requires: deep reserves of patience, tolerance and courage.